On a whim Carlin decided to look up a girl from his youth whom he hadn’t thought of in fifteen years. In retrospect he had no idea why he had decided to investigate her, other than that the weather outside of his apartment window was gloomy and rain-soaked, and that there was a certain boredom that had crept in at some point and set up a permanent encampment somewhere inside of him. An image of her had come to him unbidden, a flash of memory-film cropping up between staring at the endless parade of items offered up on the internet and glancing out at the slow, meticulous sway of the trees that lined the street below. He’d had to take a few minutes to remember her name. Margaret had become Mandy had turned into Marcy before he’d finally resolved it as Melissa. The last name had come easier; Carlin had worked with her father Terry in the Creamery, where the man had been in charge of ensuring that the recipe being mixed together was exactly right for the flavour and brand of salad dressing being made. He’d been a drunk but he’d been all right for that; some people were worthless as drunks, but some, like Terry, had been perfectly fine except for an unhealthy bulge in the nose and a lost sort of sadness lurking behind their irises.
Even as he plugged her name into Facebook he wondered why he was bothering. Surely she’d grown up since he’d known her, gotten married and delivered a series of children and resorted to dye jobs in salons to keep up the lustre of that nearly white blonde hair that was the central figure in his mind’s recollection. Even if she had never been married, or had since been divorced, or had never had children, or her children had been taken away from her, there was no advance he could rationally take from simply looking up her name and finding the information that there was to find. Who messages someone out of the blue after fifteen years of radio silence, except for vague acquaintances pushing pyramid schemes on everyone they’d ever met? Carlin didn’t have scented waxes or miracle weight-loss belts to offload. He didn’t have any reason at all to contact Melissa McVee, except that he was bored and lonely and the nexus of those two states of being is a certain wistful nostalgia. It was a sensation the French had once referred to as mal du pays.
“Don’t you find it a little odd, though?”
“Hmm?” Carlin’s roommate Sasha asked, not looking up from her laptop. Her response was less a question than it was a simple animal noise, a recognition that something had been said and a refusal to engage with it beyond that acknowledgement.
“Are you listening to me at all?” Carlin asked.
“Not particularly,” Sasha replied, continuing to tap away at her keyboard. “There’s an idiot here who thinks that the presence of transgendered people as a part of society demanding the equality granted between anyone and anyone at all doesn’t make for a political situation.”
“Not everyone’s read Ranciere, Sasha,” Carlin said. “Could you stop for a couple of minutes and listen to me?”
“Why?” she asked, looking up from her laptop at last. “Not everyone has Facebook, Carlin.”
“It’s not just that, though,” he replied. “She isn’t on any social network, and when I do a Google search you know what shows up?”
“The weight of the information Autobahn bearing down upon you?” Sasha muttered, returning her gaze to the screen of her laptop.
“Nothing. Well, virtually nothing. Just a message of condolences from the McVee family to someone who’d just lost their husband. That’s it. An entry in some two-bit funeral home’s register of grief.”
“How utterly shocking,” Sasha muttered in response.
“How does that not make your skin crawl just a little?”
“Some people don’t have social media accounts. Elvar doesn’t. Elvar barely knows the internet exists.”
“Elvar is one step removed from being a train-riding vagabond. Melissa was a normal person with normal aspirations and normal friends when I grew up with her. Even the unrepentant technophobes from the deep country I went to high school with have Facebook accounts now. If they don’t have Facebook accounts, they have something. They show up in pictures. They have marriage announcements, birth announcements. Those announcements are digitized by the local paper for people to read online. Something. There should be something about her.”
“Look,” Sasha said, closing her laptop and rubbing the bridge of her nose. “What is this about? Why the sudden interest in a girl you sort of knew back in high school?”
“What do you mean ‘sort of knew’?”
“I’ve never heard you mention this girl once, not in the nine years I’ve known you. You’ve gone into detail with me about every girl you’ve so much as kissed back then and I’ve never heard of this person.”
“It’s hard to explain,” he replied, and in that moment it is the absolute truth. It’s hard to explain the need to reach out to someone you only vaguely knew. The feelings for someone are complicated when you knew their father but never really got to know them, despite your being the same age in a town where the necessities of compressed populations dictate that everyone knows everyone else in one way or another. It comes down to a series of fleeting sense impressions, the only things that ever seem to remain indelible in memory as that memory begins to near capacity. It comes down to watching a person walk across the street a block away; to running into them at a town festival and having a conversation that seemed deep at the time but you can’t remember a blessed thing about years later; to watching a person talk to two of the town’s more prominent basketball players and then walk away from them with the glint of tears reflecting May sunshine on their face.
“Is this about you needing to get laid?” Sasha asked.
“As I recall, that’s no longer any of your business,” he replied, and the rising pressure that her comment dredged up let him know that he would need to leave their apartment soon before he got angry.
“It’s not,” Sasha said coolly. “What I mean, though, is that you don’t have any trouble in that department. No one really does anymore, as long as their presentable, tolerable, and halfway sane. You don’t even need to put in the effort anymore, not really. You take out your phone, swipe a few times, send out a few messages, exchange Snapchats, send a series of increasingly scandalous snaps in both directions, and make plans to meet up. The revolution will be on TikTok and that revolution is really just another movement in the old Sexual Revolution. Now that we’ve recognized that we all need it, we’re making it easier to get it every year. Every month, it seems like. Now you’ve come across someone you can’t just instantly message. You can’t phone her, you can’t even get old-fashioned and romantic and send her a letter. She’s out of reach, and it’s driven you a bit over the edge.”
Carlin shook his head.
“It’s nothing like that at all,” he said.
“Oh? What is it like, then?”
“I just want to know how she’s doing,” he replied, “and I can’t. I’d have to go back home and look her up.”
“Well,” Sasha said, “there you go.” She shrugged, opened up her laptop, and resumed typing.
When Carlin got into his car and drove out of the parking complex buried beneath his building he had no real intention of getting very far. He’d been seething at the time, still angry with Sasha for trying to psychoanalyze him in a half-baked fashion. When he passed University Avenue he thought just a few more blocks and I’ll probably turn around. Half an hour later when he took the onramp to the highway he thought I’ll grab lunch at Fire & Ice and maybe hit the big grocery store out near there and then go home. Three hours later, as the scars of the sprawl of the modern city were receding in the face of more timeless spreads of corn, soy, and pasture, he had no more thoughts. He tapped his finger on the steering wheel in time to the music on the radio, kept his eyes on the road, and let the worn neural pathways of familiar music substitute for actual thought. He crossed the borders of Huron County without fanfare and felt no stirring inside of himself when he saw the iconic rise of the steeple of the Presbyterian church over the sleeping line of Seaforth.
He turned off the main road as soon as he could and crawled along the backstreets of Seaforth like an awkward ghost. Some magazine or another had once called it the quintessential small Ontario town, and as he returned to its creeping streets he realized that what this really meant was very little changed. The line of houses were quiet, and the only movement came courtesy of the breeze. Everyone would be at work, of course; it was near the end of the workday so the denizens of these stately brick houses would be busily engaged elsewhere. The park was deserted. In Carlin’s day there would have been at least a couple of burnouts lounging on the park benches taking in the sun, but times had apparently changed. He turned back out on to the other main road through town and marvelled at how sleepy the commercial strip seemed even in the heart of the afternoon. A couple of older women loitered near the post office, chatting in that peculiarly slow way that the elderly develop as they slip into the vagaries of age. He thought about stopping to ask them directions to anywhere and then decided better.
Further up the main street he saw a phantom from an older age – an actual phone booth. At first he refused to believe it was real, and when he got out of his car and approached it he refused to believe it would contain that other artefact of a bygone era, the phone book. It did, however: a thick grey-paged book with a bright yellow cover, containing people, addresses, and phone numbers in their multitude. He scanned through the M listing and there was McVee, T, real to the touch. He copied the number down and got back into his car.
He took the car further up to the Optimist Park, where the baseball diamond still held dominion over a small grouping of playground equipment and a diminutive soccer field. The phone rang on and on but just when Carlin was about to hang up and drive back home the connection was made.
“Hello?” the voice on the other end asked, and Carlin was mostly sure that it was Terry.
“Terry? Terry McVee?” Carlin asked. There was hesitation on the other end.
“May I ask who’s calling?” Terry said.
“It’s Carlin, Carlin Chambers, we worked together back at the Creamery. I guess, when the Creamery was still open. You were working the recipe and I was on packing.”
There was a pause on the phone, and when he spoke Terry’s voice was drawn-out and wary.
“Listen,” he said, “What’s this about?”
Carlin swallowed and found that his throat was quite dry.
“Actually, Mr. McVee, this is really about your daughter, I went to school with her and-“
“Not another one! I really thought we were over this! I’ve had enough of you-“
“Terry, woah, Terry!” Carlin exclaimed. “Calm down, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
There was another pause, and Carlin wondered if Terry hadn’t just put down the phone and walked away.
“Carlin Chambers?” Terry asked.
“Line 2, back in oh-one or oh-two? Around then, anyway?”
“Yes sir, I worked there with you.”
There was another pause, and then, “Alright. Alright. Come on over, we’ll have a beer, I’ll give you the rundown.”
Terry gave him the address and Carlin thanked him and ended the call. He drove down to the address, noted the location, and then found a place to park for a time. He watched the cars drive by the main road from the mouth of a side street and slouched down whenever he saw someone walking near. Eventually he talked himself into the beer with Terry and retraced his steps.
Terry’s house was a spacious bungalow on the edge of town and Carlin found it surprisingly neatly kept. The look that Terry gave Carlin when he arrived was wary but he was waved in regardless. Terry showed him to the living room and returned a moment later with a couple of domestic pilsners. He sat down across from Carlin, unscrewed the cap, and waited for a while before speaking.
“So you knew Melissa in high school, then?” Terry asked. Carlin looked around the room. It was sparsely decorated, with very few pictures on the wall or accoutrement on shelves. He was suddenly quite sure that Terry’s wife had passed on some time ago.
“Yes, we were in most of the same classes together. I went to go see if I could look her up online to see if I could get ahold of her, just to see what she’s been up to since we graduated.”
“Oh yeah?” Terry asked. Carlin noticed that he looked away, down and to the left toward the floor.
“I didn’t find anything,” Carlin continued. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that before. Nothing on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. No dating profiles. No news items or records of graduating from anything. None of our mutual friends from high school mentioning her name in anything, recent or otherwise. No death notice, either. No reports of a missing person named Melissa McVee. I got curious, so I decided to come home and find out what she was up to in person.”
Terry drank half his bottle in one draught before responding.
“Well,” Terry said, “the thing about that is that I don’t quite know. I know where she lives, and I know that she’s alive, but beyond that, I can’t tell you.”
“Did you have a falling out?” Carlin asked gently.
“No! Nothing of the sort. It’s hard to explain.”
Terry rose from the sofa and walked to the window. He peered out into the street, first to the left and then to the right, and then closed the curtains with a jerk. When he turned around to face Carlin, it looked as though all of the muscles in the man’s face had sagged at once.
“It’s because of a camping trip,” he said.
Melissa had been invited to go camping up on the French River with a group of people she went to school with. Terry called them exactly that: “a group of people she went to school with”. He didn’t call them “friends”, and the disassociation echoed in Carlin’s head while Terry told his story.
“She came home one day asking if I would mind if she went up to the woods in the north for a week. Some sort of get back to nature thing. There was a bunch of them and they had it all worked out. Tents, gear, canoes even to take out onto the river and fish and what not. They would embark at some rickety little village, not much more than a dock and some buildings, canoe up the river to a likely spot, and then set up camp.
I had a bad feeling about it from the get-go. Of course I did. Those boys and girls she was going up north with were chuckleheads, the lot of them, I wouldn’t have trusted them to change my oil. Still don’t. Derek McDonald is doing just that over at Marty Henderson’s garage, and I wouldn’t go there on a bet. What was I supposed to say, though? No? It’s not like I would miss her, I was on midnights that week and I would barely have seen her anyway. She had enough trouble trying to fit in at that damned school, and I didn’t want her to have to miss out on maybe fitting in better just because her old man had a funny feeling.”
“I don’t remember her not fitting in,” Carlin said, feeling a slow wave of confusion crawl over him. “I don’t remember that at all.”
“I guess it depends on who you were friends with. Did you hang around with them? Derek McDonald and the others?”
“Not particularly, I suppose. I was a smoking pit rat, and they hung out elsewhere.”
“Well, then take it from me. Those boys were only interested in what boys that age are always interested in, and those girls were the type to say one thing to your face and another behind your back. Still, I thought it might be good for her, so I gave her permission. Kick myself to this day for that. One of them must have done something to her, I never found out what. She never wanted to talk about it, after. Hell, she never wanted to talk.
When she came back she went to her room and basically shut herself up in there. Closed the door, wouldn’t respond to knocking unless I got insistent, could hear her typing away on her computer at all hours of the night. There would be weird noises. Early on it sounded like she was hitting her keyboard, and sobbing. Or not quite sobbing, I’m not sure.”
He paused, wiped at his mouth, and disappeared into the kitchen. There were two more beers in his hand and Carlin accepted one in silence.
“It was deeper than sobbing. I guess maybe you’d call it guttural, if that’s a word for a noise a human can make. When she did come out of her room, she wouldn’t say much of anything. She looked exhausted and her skin was grey. She would walk around the house in this sort of limp, like she’d forgotten how to walk and she was figuring out how to do it all over again. Over time I didn’t hear those noises so much anymore, and she started to walk normally again, but for a while, I swear, honest to God it was like she’d been born all over again and she’d regressed to being a toddler in some ways.
Her mother and I had a fight about it, a big one. She wanted to haul the lot of them down to court, everyone she’d gone on the trip with. I told her it wasn’t a goddamn option, it would be us against the rest of them, and that would mean it would be us against the rest of the town. She dropped it, but she also left me pretty shortly after. The letter she sent me told me I was a coward and that I wasn’t willing to stand up for my family. She didn’t take Melissa with her, though.”
He drained half of his beer at once and wiped at his mouth. Carlin played with the label on his bottle and realized that he was holding his breath.
“Wasn’t long ’til graduation, though,” Terry continued. “She didn’t cross the stage for her diploma or any of that. Just took the letter and didn’t talk about it, like everything else. Few weeks later and she was gone, claimed she took a job and moved out.”
“Claimed she took a job?” Carlin interjected, looking up quickly.
“Sure. She never gave me very many details, she was home when I called in the middle of the day, and, just before she must have changed her address with the post office, they delivered a letter from the welfare department here.”
He gulped down the rest of the bottle and slammed the empty down on the coffee table. It wobbled uncertainly, threatened to fall over, and in the end righted itself.
“I can give you her number if you want. Maybe she’ll talk to you. It might be easier for her, with someone who isn’t me, or her mother, you know?”
Carlin wadded up a mound of gummy beer label between his fingers and stared intently at it.
“I don’t know, Terry,” he said. “It sounds to me like she doesn’t want to talk to other people, and I don’t know if I were in that position if I’d want some guy I barely knew in high school coming by and-“
“Please, Carlin,” Terry said. Carlin looked up and saw that there was a wetness quivering on the surface of the man’s eyes. “I have no idea what my daughter is up to, if she’s working, if she’s anything like happy, if she’s even alive right now.”
The wad of former label dislodged itself from Carlin’s fingers and tumbled toward the floor.
“Another beer, and we have a deal,” he said.
He drove out to the edge of town near the old Van Egmond manor and parked alongside an artificially spaced line of poplars, next to a row of graves from the early 19th Century. He called her number, waited through nine rings, and broke off the attempt. The day was darkening now and a stiff breeze was blowing out from the west, out from the lake that sprawled out in the distance that way. He checked his social media, swiped his way through a series of photos that National Geographic had taken of the Arctic, and then his phone buzzed. He checked the number and saw that it was Melissa.
“Hello?” he answered the phone tentatively.
“Who is this?” she asked. Her voice croaked over the connection, as though her throat was clearing out after a long period of disuse.
“Melissa, this is Carlin Chambers,” he said, “I’m not sure if you remember me.”
“Go on,” she said.
“Well,” Carlin fumbled. “You see, I thought about you the other day and wanted to know what it was you were up to these days, only I realized that there was nothing about you on social media. I mean,” he laughed, “I guess it’s a little silly, how quickly it’s all come up and we expect everyone to be as embedded in that culture as we are ourselves, but it threw me for a loop and I had to come out here to find out.”
“You…thought of me?” she said after a moment. The pause between her words was oddly cut, as though there had been a little buffering bar loading underneath her voice.
“Yeah, I was daydreaming and going back through some old memories in my head and then I remembered a few that had you in them. Look, I know it sounds a little bizarre.”
“We don’t have to meet up if you don’t want to,” Carlin said, stressing the choice that underpinned the invitation. “I should be getting home before my roommate worries anyway. But I drove all this way and I would love to talk to you.”
“How did you get my number?”
“Your dad is worried about you.”
There was another awkwardly long pause on the phone.
“My dad,” she said, her throaty voice falling flat on the words. It was like listening to boiled water – devoid of any taste but still wet.
“I should go,” Carlin said. In the moment he felt as though he couldn’t press the red end button fast enough. His screen melted away back to the home position and he placed it in the driver side cup holder.
He rested his chin in the crux of his thumb and forefinger and watched the world subtly change through the windshield. He chased the conversation through his head on a repeated gif loop. Her voice, with its odd inflections and starts and stops; it was jagged, as if it was being dragged along a rough pathway. He started the car and pulled out onto the main road.
Where he was going was a mystery; the car rolled down streets and the wheel turned seemingly at random. He wasn’t sure what he was even driving around looking for, but on the outskirts of town he found a shabby-looking garage with a weather-beaten old sign that said “Henderson Fine Autos” that featured a pair of faded old 80s-vintage sedans quietly rusting in the parking lot. There was no movement, although the big garage door was closed and there were drawn blinds over the office, so Carlin wasn’t sure if there was anyone there or not. It wasn’t the end of the business day yet, though, so he decided on getting out and trying to find an employee.
Inside the garage a radio hanging on the wall let out a steady stream of grungy gut-rock, 90s retreads that seemed to all blend into each other. There was a glass window immediately to the right of the entrance and behind it a middle-aged balding man sat behind a desk marking off paperwork. He wore a blue workshirt with “Henderson” stitched into it. Carlin knocked on the door of this little office; Henderson looked up and gestured him in impatiently.
“Just drive the car in,” Henderson said, still looking down at his paperwork. “Then let Derek know what the problem is.”
“It’s actually Derek I’m looking for,” Carlin said. Henderson looked up and looked at him without expression for a moment.
“What’d he do this time?” Henderson asked, his tone defeated.
“I don’t know,” Carlin replied, “That’s sort of what I wanted to talk to him about.”
“Goddammit,” Henderson spat. “He’s out back dealing with some old tires. Don’t make a scene. You aren’t with the cops are you?”
“No,” Carlin replied, biting his lip to keep from laughing. “Just trying to get a story straight.”
Henderson didn’t offer directions but Carlin managed to find the back door, on the other side of four cars that were hoisted up and in varying states of repair. It screamed in protest as he opened it and the sunlight was overly bright even after the short time he’d spent within the garage. Derek McDonald was stacking old tires out against the cinderblock wall, just as Henderson had implied. Carlin vaguely recognized him from their adolescence, although the two of them had never really hung out together. The Derek in his memories was a lot skinnier, less pasty-looking, his posture upright and powerful rather than slouched.
He wondered how to approach the situation, whether he should call out to Derek or simply wait. Derek solved the situation by turning furtively around, his hand darting to the front pocket of his workshirt (exactly like Henderson’s, only with “McDonald” stitched above the pocket his hand was diving into). He had probably been reaching for a cigarette, but when he saw Carlin his hand froze and his expression became a mixture of shock and dismay that Carlin almost found hilarious.
“Hey, you’re not supposed to be back here,” Derek said. “This ain’t no public alleyway.”
Carlin put a hand out, as though Derek were a dog or some other creature in need of soothing. “I’m here to talk to you,” he said. Derek cringed backward, nearly falling into the tires.
“Aw hell no,” he cried, “I didn’t do it. Whatever you’re here to pin on me I didn’t do it.”
“No,” Carlin said, frustrated, and then decided to try a different tactic. “Look, we went to school together.”
Derek peered at him and Carlin was again struck by how much the man had let himself go in the ensuing years.
“Yeah, I think I recognize you,” Derek said. “You’re named Carey or Carlin or something like that.”
“Carlin,” Carlin said, feeling somewhat relieved. “So you remember me?”
“Man, no,” Derek said, “I barely recognize you, like I know we went to school together and it was a small school but I don’t know what you’re here for.”
“OK,” Carlin said, growing impatient. “Do you remember Melissa McVee though?”
The impact that the name had on Derek’s demeanour was electric. The paltry amount of colour left in his cheeks vanished and his mouth closed tightly, as though he’d just taken a hefty shot of lemon juice.
“Nah,” Derek said, and now there was real hostility in his voice. “Get the fuck out of here. I ain’t talking to you about shit.”
The bizarre nature of the day had left Carlin with his own sense of bubbling rage and it erupted out at Derek.
“So, what?” Carlin yelled. “You guys just took her out into the woods and what? Beat her up? Did worse things to her?”
“What goddamn business is it of yours?” Derek shouted. He started toward Carlin, his fists raised and his eyes telegraphing his intent to bury one in the thin breakable cartilage of Carlin’s nose.
“I just talked to her dad,” Carlin shouted back. “He told me she was never the same after she came back from that camping group with you…’chuckleheads’ was what he called you but I bet I could find way worse things to call you, right Derek?”
Derek stopped six feet from Carlin and his fist withered and fell to his side. The angry glare was replaced by something altogether more dreadful; he looked like nothing so much as a little boy caught out in the rain without a jacket blocks from home.
“I see her dad around town now and again,” he said, and his voice was quiet now. “He won’t even look me in the eye?”
“What happened?” Carlin asked. “What the hell happened?”
Derek looked at the back door for a long moment and then pulled a pack of cigarettes out of that front pocket. He lit one and leaned back against the wall.
“We went camping, yeah,” he said, and Carlin felt that for Derek he might not even be there. “Big group of us. Me, Eric De Vries, Connor Sutherland, Dawn Gaeder, Lisa Schultz, Melissa. It was Melissa’s first time out in the woods, she’d kind of always been on the outside of us. Her and Lisa had become friends, though, so we invited her out. At first everything was okay. We went swimming, set up the tents, cooked dinner. There were drinks, of course – what’s the point of camping if you aren’t drinking – but it’s not like any of us were getting blacked out or anything.”
“We hit the tents once it got late and tried to get some sleep. I remember…” he exhaled smoke and stared up into the sky. “I remember thinking I heard Connor and Dawn going at it. They were clearly trying to be quiet, but the woods are quieter. At least I thought they were then. It was right after they finished, or when it sounded like they finished doing whatever it was they were doing. I heard another tent zip open and someone stepping heavily out into the trees. I went back to sleep but some time later I woke up. It must have been the footsteps coming back into that same tent that woke me up, but I could tell it was a lot lighter out. Light enough that I could sort of see through the door of my tent, and I saw an outline of Melissa going back into her tent.”
“The next day was…odd. When she got up out of her tent in the morning it sounded like she’d caught a hell of a cold overnight, like her throat was just stuffed with snot. It got better throughout the day but she could hardly talk at first, and when she did it sounded slow, like she was picking over her words. Like it was the first grade again or something. She had some trouble walking, too. I don’t know what was wrong with her and I never found out.”
“So she caught a bad cold out in the woods one night and it derailed her life?” Carlin was skeptical and starting to regret coming to the garage. Derek obviously had problems of his own and Carlin wasn’t sure how reliable a witness this greying, pudgy man could realistically be.
“No man, I don’t think that at all,” Derek said, and Carlin saw that the man had refocused his attention back on him. “She was like a different person entirely. One who didn’t even know how to act as a person. Like she’d been reset out in the woods that night and she was trying to play catch-up. We kind of avoided her for the rest of the trip and then when we got back to town we avoided her some more. It seemed like a mutual decision. Everyone could see that something had happened to her though. They thought the same thing you did – that we did something to her out there that night, like we were monsters to her or something.”
He tossed his cigarette butt into the gravel of the alley and spun angrily, getting up into Carlin’s face.
“We didn’t do a goddamn thing to her!” he shouted. Carlin winced and wondered how long it would take people to come and investigate what was going on in the alley. “We invited her out there, what else were we supposed to do? She wandered off and came back and I don’t know what happened!”
He lowered his voice, pitching it down to a near-whisper. “She would stare at us, the whole time after. Whenever we were fishing, or swimming, she would just sit and stare at us. You could look back to the shoreline and there she would be, just. Watching. Or whatever.”
He pulled out another cigarette and lit it, not bothering to check the door this time. “Once I woke up and she was in the door of my tent, just squatting and looking at me. I got angry, swore a bunch, called her a lot of names you’re not supposed to call a woman. She didn’t even flinch, just kept eyeing me until she finally went back to her own tent. And the smell.” He exhaled smoke in a short burst of laughter and choked on it a little. “Like something rotting, or, I don’t know. Molding. Like wet leaves in the basement. She didn’t smell like that before. Before, she smelled like…” He trailed off. Carlin got the hint and shuffled his feet, uncomfortable.
“Alright, I should probably go then,” he said. “Sorry to bring up the past like this, but…like I said, her father…”
“Whatever,” Derek said, dismissing him with a wave. “Get lost before I get fired. If the boss asks you on the way out just tell him I’m stacking those tires like he asked.”
Henderson was gone when Carlin went back inside, and the garage was deserted. He returned to his car and put his forehead on the steering wheel, at a loss for what to do next.
Carlin had made up his mind to leave, regardless of his promises to Terry, and had gone so far as to get near the edge of town when his phone rang over the Bluetooth connection. He pulled over when he saw the number come up; it was the same one he’d punched in sitting in that cemetery overlooking another borderland of the town.
“Hello?” he opened cautiously.
“Carlin Chambers,” Melissa said, and the inflections on his name sounded off. She had pronounced them normally but there was something just slightly off-kilter about the way they came over the car’s stereo.
“That’s me,” he chuckled nervously. “I want to apologize to you about the call we had earlier today. I’m sure it was pretty weird for you too.”
“Pretty weird,” she said. “I’m used to it.”
You’re used to it was what Carlin almost said, but Melissa kept speaking after an oddly-shaped moment of time.
“I was calling you back to see if you wanted to fetch up,” she said, “maybe get some coffee and talk about old times.”
“I –“ did she say fetch up or catch up? Am I hearing things now? “I would love to do that. Is there a particular coffee shop in town you’d like to go to or…?”
“Just come to my house,” she said. “I’ve got lots of coffee. Good stuff. Just come here and we can talk about things.” She gave her address in a sing-song fashion, as though reciting it for a class.
“Sure, Melissa, that sounds nice.” The smile on his face was insincere. She hung up and he hung on to that smile about a second longer. He drummed his hands on the steering wheel and thought about it. It was on his mind to leave, to just keep going down Highway 8 and make the connections that would eventually lead him back home. He was a block or so away from the town limits, parked on the top of the hill that overlooked the YMCA swimming pool and baseball diamond. Before him lay stretched out farm fields, green and lush but now dappled in shadow. Thunderheads were gathering on the horizon; a darkness formed on the edge of town.
He drove off in a different direction. His phone gave him the turns, and he whistled as he went. It was just a coffee. There was no need to make anything more out of it. A little bit of fetch up – or catch up, rather, what a silly thing to have thought another person said – and then back home before it got too dark. She could talk about what happened to her, or not. He was just being polite. And so on – he was providing post-hoc justification for what he was already doing. He had to see. He’d come all this way, after all.
He passed the town limits sign outside of the old drive-in diner, back by where the elementary school had been before the powers that be had decided that rural education was just not in the budget. It was the first time he’d left town since he arrived, and now the storm was starting to run ahead of him, the shadows creeping over his car and darkening the road before him. By the time his phone indicated it was time to turn off the road rain had begun to spatter on his windshield and a low rumble could be heard some few miles behind.
The road he was directed to take was one he didn’t remember clearly, and Carlin noted that it was not very well maintained. The next turn he was told to make took him into a small village named Vanastra. Most of the houses looked exactly like what they were: barracks built to house military personnel during the Second World War that were repurposed as low-income family housing. He drove slowly through town, the rain worsening, until he came to what his phone called “his destination”: a stooped and ill-favoured bungalow nestled against the woods that ringed the western edge of the village.
He watched the house from inside his car, listening to the rain hammer down upon the roof. It was dilapidated, and one of the upstairs windows had planks of wood hammered overtop of it. He thought of the story that Derek had told him, about how Melissa had gone into the forest and come back hours later, different. Now she was here, in this decaying soldier’s barracks by the edge of another forest. The rain thrummed across his thoughts and he closed his eyes to try to block it out. He should turn around, get out of this driveway and just drive. Not necessarily even back to Toronto, but out of this little village and anywhere else. Just turn around and –
There was a tapping on his window. When he opened his eyes he saw Melissa standing outside the car, peering in. She looked the same as she had when Carlin had known her in high school, except with more folds to her skin; it was as though her skin had just started loosening in lieu of ageing, and her eyes were more sunken than Carlin remembered. She smiled when she saw him open his eyes, though, and Carlin wondered if he wasn’t just psyching himself out.
He rolled down the window and she gave a little wave.
“Hi Carlin,” she said. “Sorry about the weather. Come inside. I have something I want to show you.”
Carlin smiled back, although he could feel it wavering a little. Up close there was a slight croak in her voice, but it was raining out and Carlin told himself not to get caught up in some alky good ol’ boy’s paranoid ideas. Her smile seemed genuine enough and it was with only a hint of trepidation that he emerged from the car and followed her quickly to the doorway.
That feeling quickly faded as he got into the house. There was a smell lingering in the atmosphere, something deeply wet and unpleasant. Every house has its own particular smell, depending on the food that its inhabitants cook or the animals they keep. Melissa’s house smelled like there was something mouldering in an unseen room, some pile of damp garbage. He thought about Derek’s contention that she smelled of decaying wet leaves and felt a wave of cold nausea run through his stomach. He stood in the drab entryway of Melissa’s house, torn; his feet wanted to go, badly as it turned out, but his rational brain still wanted to stay, and was busily browbeating his animal response with a long line of reasons as to why everything was perfectly normal.
Melissa stood on the other side, in the entryway to what Carlin assumed was the kitchen. She beckoned to him, smiling.
“Come here, Carlin. I have something I want to show you.”
“I think I should go,” Carlin said, feeling oddly childlike.
“Come here, Carlin,” she repeated. “I have something I want to show you.”
God help him, he went.
The rattle of the doorknob downstairs brought an immense amount of relief to Sasha. It was nearly one in the morning and she had expected Carlin back from his nostalgia trip ages ago. She had suspected in the back of her mind for the last several hours that Carlin had found what he was looking for and was in the throes of reunion passion with this random girl he had apparently just remembered today. There was clearly more of a story there and Sasha planned on dragging it out of him in the morning, but for now she was content that he was home. She had pictured his car smashed up on the highway, the lurid flashing lights of an emergency response team surrounding him, cutting him out, and shaking their heads sadly as they called it with the precise time.
“Carlin,” she called out, “Glad you’re back. Maybe call me next time you’re going to be late so I don’t think you’ve met your end in the middle of nowhere.”
There was no response from downstairs. She caught a strange scent wafting up from below, like leaves left to moulder under the outdoor steps after the great autumn rains. Her first instinct was to make a note to tell the landlord to fulfill his cleaning duties, but then she remembered that it hadn’t rained in days.
“Carlin?” she asked into the silence.
“Come here, Sasha,” Carlin said. His voice seemed thick and draggy, like he’d caught a hell of a cold between leaving and returning. “I have something I want to show you.”
Trevor Zaple is a Canadian with an M.A. in Political Science whose work has appeared in Across The Margin, +Horror Library+, Trigger Warning, and Pif Magazine. He currently lives in the second-best London with his wife, two daughters, two dogs, a cat, and a stuffed moose.
If you enjoyed “Mal du Pays”, you might also enjoy “Angels of the Morning” by Alan Catlin.